Francesca Cho’s latest solo show is at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, a venue which is linked in my mind with Sunday afternoon film double bills. But on visiting Cho’s exhibition (several times – as it’s easily accessible on my walking route home) I find that it has a smart bar cum restaurant and a couple of small theatres as well. The gallery space is part of the bar – which means that the exhibition is always likely to be getting some traffic, unlike some of the out-of-the-way galleries in Hackney.
The exhibition is in part a retrospective but also shows some of Cho’s recent work in which she uses ash in her paintings. In This is not just a Beautiful Picture (2011), first shown at her Mayfair public library show last year, a silhouette looking remarkably like St Paul’s Cathedral is engulfed in an ash cloud – looking like the famous photograph of London in the Blitz. Mortality and Immortality (2012), is the transatlantic equivalent: the silhouette of the twin towers of the World Trade Center again surrounded by clouds of their own ash.
For those who are interested in the creative process it is fascinating to see images of finished works alongside the original studies for those works. The most substantial study is that for Hangul 7. In the finished work, now in a private collection, the central image is the first few words of the Hunminjeongeum in which King Sejong triumphantly presents his new alphabet to his people. In the background, a dim shade can just be made out, as of a Buddhist monk dancing the seungmu. It is a deeply patriotic but nevertheless subtle and almost introverted work.
The study on display at the Riverside Studios is much more exuberant. The focus is on the music and dance; a drum is centre stage and the painting is split over two canvases as if the artist found herself taken in unplanned directions as she was painting it, overwhelmed by the movement of the dance. Almost as an afterthought, some Hangul script appears beside the drum.
The study and the completed work may be very different, but you can see how one emerged from the other. Other studies such as those for Via Dolorosa (in a private collection) and Reflection (1995) after Byron’s Pool in Cambridge (in the East Ham Memorial Hospital collection) bear similar relationship – the ideas in the study coming to full maturity in the finished work.
With other studies the creative leap is bigger. In Invisible Tears (2012) the mood is changed completely by shifting from an oil painting in an almost shocking pink to a dark ash painting with turquoise and red rice paper.
But the title work of the exhibition is seemingly even further from the original study. Fragility is another of Cho’s ash paintings, a technique she started in 2010. A grey crusted surface of ash in a frame of crimson, with dark patches underlying the grey. These patches are in fact fresh rose petals, whose moisture has changed the colour of the layers of ash on top; and at various points you can see the crimson of the petal poking through the surface.
The studies for Fragility are scattered throughout the exhibition, and consist of pencil drawings of wine glasses, sometimes empty, sometimes full, sometimes whole and sometimes broken. Red wine drips down the stem of one of the glasses like blood in a painting of the Crucifixion. The message seems to be that the glass has a perfect shape and beauty, but like our bodies is vulnerable and once broken can never be mended. By using ash in the fininshed work, Cho seems to be referencing the burial service and the cycle of our lives returning to ash – but even then there is the hope of resurrection as the petals poke through the grey crust of ash which tries to suppress them.
The ash used in Cho’s work is made from the incinerated remains of her own papers, pointing to the possibility of re-use, of beauty after the initial phase of life is over.
Rose petals also feature in Cho’s installation Vive La Rose (2012). Here the petals, dried and fragile, are suspended on transparent nylon threads, forming a mobile curtain in front of a painting which looks only partially finished. Shadows from the petals merge with darker patches of paint; a diagonal in red paint suggests the violence of a battlefield while on the right of the canvas the green paint suggests the hope of a church steeple.
The petals seem to be giving the sombre message that even in death there is beauty, and possibly hope.
And finally, we are presented with a study for which there is as yet no finished artwork: White Shadow (2012) seems to be a variation on Cho’s earlier work in which a relatively plain canvas is divided in the middle by a complex and rich field of colour, either vertical or more usually horizontal. Here the background is dark and threatening, while the horizontal division is like surf on a wave. It will be interesting to see what the final painting looks like – it may turn out completely different on the surface, but there will be a thematic continuity which we will only know when we see it.
Francesca Cho: A Pair of Fragile Glasses is at the Riverside Studios until 31 August 2012.